Expanding Roles for Robots in Medicine and Future Pandemics
As the spread of the corona virus accelerated, the need for medical personnel as well as medical equipment and supplies accelerated. At Optimation, where we design and fabricate manufacturing lines, we were contacted dozens of times with requests to participate in increasing the production of the necessary equipment and supplies. We became engaged in discussions for manufacturing ventilators, face masks, face shields and hand sanitizers. We remain engaged with many of those opportunities, but the immediately identified needs are the short-term ones. As we learn from this pandemic, we need to think about longer term strategies. We need to find improved uses of technology and identify and manufacture items that can more effectively be used by medical communities, and in some cases by the community at large. We had the experiences of SARS, MERS and Ebola to learn from and we knew a great deal about pandemics, but the world was not well prepared for COVID-19. There weren’t enough hospital beds and there was a shortage of equipment. There was a huge scramble for ventilators and at the urging of governments a dozen or more companies jumped into the manufacture of ventilators, but what other equipment might have been valuable? With lessons learned from our current situation can we use to prepare for the next pandemic. It’s a good time to look for new opportunities and to develop new equipment to help the medical community be more effective.
The role of robots in a pandemic immediately comes to mind. Although transmission was rapid for COVID-19 and in many cases it proved fatal, it is not hard to believe that a more invasive and more deadly virus could be part of the next pandemic. As the risk to health care workers grows the need for better isolation becomes increasingly important. We can make more effective hand sanitizers. We can design and build more effective masks and suits to protect medical workers, but in addition to these tools we need something more. Well-designed medical robots could fill the gap, both in terms of isolation and in terms of staffing. And, with the disruptions we’ve witnessed in the global supply chain during the pandemic, the innovation of the new wave of medical robots needs to happen here in the United States. American jobs can provide for their design, manufacture, support and maintenance. This can be another fast-growing manufacturing industry.
There are many ways robots can assist in medicine. At the high-end robots and AI are being used increasingly to help analyze data from symptoms and help very effectively with medical diagnosis. Robots are being used in hospitals as couriers to deliver food, supplies and medicine. Robots can clean and disinfect hospital rooms, spray disinfectants or disinfect surfaces using ultraviolet light, but in a future pandemic it may not just be the role of robots to replace humans in these simple tasks. In addition to these, robots can channel the human and be the interface to the patient. If machines can be the front line and interface in the care for patients, it’s less likely that human caregivers will themselves get infected. Robots can be an enhancement of the way telemedicine works today providing additional functionality. Social interaction with the aid of a robot may be just as important, or more important than the social distancing that a hazmat suit can provide. An “attending robot” could be in patient’s room, collecting vitals, and with a web cam and screen allow a doctor, or other health care worker, to communicate with the patient. Robots don’t provide assurance or empathy the same way that a human can. The robot could have the capability to reposition itself appropriately with the patient, perhaps moving from one side of the bed to the other, reposition its microphone and screen to provide optimum communications. The human image and voice coming through the screen would be less threatening and more reassuring to the patient, perhaps even more reassuring than a human fully hidden by masks and gloves and a hazmat suit.
And robots of this nature could be used in homes in addition to hospitals. They could make house calls. Where there were cases, or suspected cases of a virus, especially a future one that is even more dangerous or contagious, the robot could go to homes, take saliva or blood samples and do a virus scanning tests right on the spot while communicating with a remote health care worker. It could carry medication with it and fill a physician’s prescription before leaving the home. Perhaps robots could even administer vaccine injections to the patient or other family members. The robot does not need to be autonomous but would be an assistant under the direction of a remote health care worker. In these cases, robots would supplement human skills rather than replacing humans. They could reduce the risk and the fatigue of the medical teams without reducing the quality of care or even the human to human communications. And of course, once initial medical needs were carried out, delivery robots could continue to bring food and supplies to quarantined people’s homes, reducing infection risk for delivery workers.
We were not as prepared as we should have been during the present pandemic. We experienced the disruptions of medical supplies, equipment and medication. In the future nothing should stand in the way of American self-reliance. We may be in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution, but we can harken back to the American Revolution and the first industrial revolution and remember everything that was accomplished at that time using good old fashion Yankee ingenuity.